Homebuilding, take 4

Gawad Kalinga is an organization that builds homes for the needy in various countries. Apparently in the Philippines they rely solely on private donations and corporate sponsorship, of which my employer is one. On this trip, 25 of us from various countries joined together to help refugee families living in the GK site. Each day we awoke, had breakfast, and boarded a Jeepney for a bumpy, dusty, (did  I mention hot?) hour-long ride to the village where we’d be helping build homes for the poorest of the Philippines poor. We had to wear makeshift face masks to help guard against the ever-present exhaust fumes.

After dropping our backpacks in one of the classrooms, we assembled outside to do warm up (no pun intended) exercises, led by a different country’s team of volunteers each day. It felt like a little like keystone cops meeting basic military training – pretty laughable actually! Then we’d regroup to get our assignments. Apparently it’s not a well-oiled  machine. Each day we waited for supplies and help from the local villagers. We’d work until lunchtime, helped along by bottled water and Gatorade; our assignments included:

  • pumping water into various vessels and transporting them (they were HEAVY) one- and two-at-a-time uphill to a well-used cement mixer
  • Shovelling gravel from a big pile by the road into recycled bags and carrying them over to the cement mixer, dumping the gravel out to create a smaller pile. Ditto for sand
  • Schlepping 50# bags of cement from the school, uphill to the cement mixer (are you getting the picture?)
  • Once the cement mixer was started up, gravel, sand, and cement were combined and dumped into a reservoir from which shovelfuls of the stuff were deposited into recycled containers and transported, fire line style, up and over a weed-covered hill to workers waiting to dump the slushy stuff into wall frames or onto the foundation
  • Digging in the hard ground (using primitive tools) to create a deep hole for a septic tank

If you think you know what sweat is, think again! I can honestly say there is no way to accurately describe the combination of the sun beating down on us  and  humidity so thick most of us “wore” rolled up towels around our necks to keep from looking like we’d just taken another shower. Sore joints and muscles? I don’t even wanna go there…

After a simple and hearty lunch made by the ladies of the villages (“the Moms”) we’d take a rest. Some would literally try to sleep in the heat, others would play with the children waiting outside. Our afternoon work was a continuation of the morning session. We’d usually call it a day between 4 and 5pm, grab some water, and board the waiting Jeepneys for another bumpy, dusty, (did  I mention hot?) hour-long ride back to the hotel. We’d have a rest period until dinner time (how good it felt to dive into the “resort’s” pool), eat quickly, and then spend a few hours planning activities for the children for the next day. (We were there to WORK, and work we did!)

Homebuilding, take 3

After a 7am wake up call in Manila (and you know I don’t do mornings) I was up and headed down to breakfast. You really get to know your co-workers when you have the chance to see them bleary-eyed after a long day of travel. After breakfast, we loaded up in vans and headed to Laguna (close to the build site) for lunch. Apparently I am the only vegetarian they’ve ever had on this trip so the cook kindly offered to make me a plate of veggies – and then cooked them in the same chicken-based sauce that everyone else’s stuff was cooked in. Oh well…

Then it was  onto the GK build site – it reminded me a lot of AZ during the time of Hands Across America. Lots of dust, heat, and obvious poverty. 150 families living in tents (provided by the Saudi Arabia government).  (photo coming soon) No running water. Trash everywhere. And amid all this: the children and their adorable faces are heartbreaking. Their clothes are clearly second (or third) hand. Many have dental issues (missing and rotted teeth)  and still they smile at us, seemingly unaware of their situation.  I wish my own children could see this; perhaps they’d feel better about having grown up in a middle-class single parent household.

After walking around to view some recently-built homes (rows of 20meters square cement row houses which will each hold an entire family!) we headed back to the Laguna hotel to prepare for our first “build” day. It’s quiet on the ride back. The reality of why we are here is sinking in…

headed to PH

For the past 7 years my company has sponsored a home building program based in the Philippines: http://gk1world.com/ . Each year volunteers are recruited from our various business units around the world and sent to PH for a week to participate in building homes for refugees who currently live in a tent city (interestingly, the tents were all donated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). Never having been to Manila, I eagerly filled out the application and was approved to go! After an orientation meeting and several additional lunches and after work get togethers to plan games for the build site’s children, I felt confident about the trip. Still, never having been to the Philippines before I had no idea what to expect. I spoke with co-workers who had previously gone on this trip; they spoke highly of the experience.  One story (about the positive effects of the trip) I heard over and over again was about an colleague based in Ireland who quit his job and went to work for GK.

You’ll be proud of me, fitting 1 week’s worth of my personal items into a carry one; the donations for the children fit into my checked luggage.

Homebuilding, take 2

After a short flight on China Airlines (< 2 hours, during which we were served a lovely small snack – a definite difference from Delta where we got nothing but peanuts on a nearly 4-hour cross country trip) we arrived at MIA (Manila International). After standing in line to exit the plane, we stood in line for immigration with a whole SEA of people. (photos coming soon)

After about 30 minutes (LAX could learn something from this method of processing people, we got our luggage (by now it had arrived and the super friendly airport staff stood by to help grab it off the belt) and stood again in line for customs. Oddly, there was a well-dressed gentleman (who apparently had made it through immigration) who did not have his official immigration card all foreigners entering the Philippines must fill out in-flight. He had a bag labeled “Bahrain Duty-Free” and looked middle eastern so I asked, are you from Bahrain? Yes, he said but then seemed concerned about speaking openly with a woman. I could see his bright red passport, stamped with a fancy gold seal and gold (arabic?) characters. I’ll bet it was real gold!

I could see the airport exit but we still had one more hurdle: money exchange. We had heard that it was best to have USD and that the airport had a better exchange rate. 80 USD netted ~3600 pesos.

Our company had arranged a driver for us, so we went in search of him. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many people milling around. And man was it HOT and HUMID! A bottle of water (don’t drink anything not bottled we were told) cost 40 pesos. And we were off to our Manila hotel, well sort of. Think of LA drive time traffic and add to that motorcycles zipping about, “Pulis” with guns literally walking onto the road, and Jeepney’s (former military vehicles pressed into service as public transport) plowing through the mass of vehicles, and you’ll begin to get the picture.

At the hotel, we schlepped our bags (most of us had a large suitcase just full of donations for the refugee children) to our rooms and went in search of dinner. What an adventure!

The hotel concierge gave me a map and I managed not to get us lost as we walked down an unlit main road, across street without traffic lights. (If you know how directionally-challenged I am, you’ll understand what sort of miracle that was!) We decided on an Indian restaurant on the 5th floor of the Podium mall since there were a fair number of Indian people also eating there. The food was surprisingly good (although they didn’t have the masala dosa listed on the menu). Our little group consisted of: 2 Japanese, 3 Taiwanese, and me, having vegetable biryani, green curry, naan, and raita in the Philippines! The cost? 435 peso each (~10.00)

My asian co-workers had a ball taking photos of practically everything! Tired but satisfied, we found our way back to the hotel. Tomorrow we get up early to get our first look at the build site.

Homebuilding, take 1

I’m sitting at the A1 departure gate at Taoyuan International Airport, waiting for my flight to Manila to board. I’m plugged into a computer hotspot, trying to connect to the internet. I can see the “free Airport wifi” listed on my internet options but for some reason, my new laptop doesn’t feel like connecting to it. (Ah, the intricacies of getting online in a foreign country.) I have a feeling things will not get easier in the Philippines. (read: It’s truly a 3rd world in the “provinces” – or so I’m expecting.)

It’ll be interesting to see if the reality truly is that bad.

Some notes about departing from Taoyuan International Airport: the general public can actually get past the check-in counters and up to a strip mall of duty-free (and other) shops. If you’re travelling with family, this allows you to spend a few more minutes with them, go grab a meal together. Then your family/friends must leave as it’s through the custom’s line and onto security where you do not have to remove your shoes!! It’s all very civilized. No one is herding you into a specific area and droning on about “TSA” instructions, and little plastic bags as you pass by. It appears that the biggest dangers to airport (and personal) security are firecrackers, magnets (big ones, from the graphic), and guns. Now come on, who carries around a big old magnet? or thinks, hey, lemme celebrate my upcoming flight by firing off some small (but really loud) explosive devices? I guess it could happen, but in a nation of really well-behaved and super polite people, I’m guessing it doesn’t happen too often.

I’m drinking a Bernachon coffee (30 NT/1USD, cold, in a can, from a vending machine) and waiting for caffeine to kick in. I was up late last night, packing the suitcases: one for my personal stuff and one for all the donated and purchased items. We were told not to wear jewelery or wear fancy clothes, since the crime rate in PH is apparently quite high. Yikes! I got lots of tips on how to avoid getting pickpocketed from my filipino co-workers. It’ll definitely be a change from super safe Taipei.

My co-workers have arrived and are filling up their water bottles from a free vending machine next to the restrooms. Hmmmmm, doesn’t sound too appealing to me. I can see our plane at the gate…

Qigong Center

Each month, I select one of the places I’ve visited in Taipei to “recommend” to the readers of Centered on Taipei magazine. This month, one of my co-workers introduced me to a delightful vegetarian restaurant; we had such a positive experience, I wrote this:


As much as I love Taiwan, I still sometimes get a bit overwhelmed by Taipei’s fast pace (okay, that’s mainly the taxi drivers), the constant barrage of sights and sounds, and the enormous variety of everything, available 24/7! Wouldn’t it be lovely to find a peaceful environs, just off the beaten path, where you can have a wonderfully delicious meal, served in zen-like surroundings, soft music playing? And after your meal, you could wander through a modern gallery, perusing museum quality works of art, or browse a selection of colorful east-meets-west clothing? If a thoughtful, peaceful haven is what you seek, then I highly recommend the Meimen “Life Cultivation” Center. The staff at this haven are welcoming and friendly. The food at the restaurant is prepared according to the Chinese philosophy of Five Colors, Five Tastes, and Five Elements. The Qigong area offers both physical and spiritual rejuvenation. Interested in flower arranging, calligraphy, or attending a special tea ceremony? Needing a one-of-a-kind handcrafted wooden tea caddy? You’ll find all that here, and more. Enter with an open heart and leave with a lighter spirit. Meimen Culture Center, 42 Lishui Street (just off of Heping, near Shida), Taipei 106 +886 0223 216 677 www.meimen.org


Birthday in Taipei

For my recent birthday (39 again –  hah!), I tried to keep it under wraps, hoping that if no one remembered it, I would not age. Word got out and my work mates feted me with a lovely tiramisu cake. Several friends took me out for dinner, one came over for dinner bearing gifts, another took me to my favorite pizza place (fifteen pizza!) and gave me a beautiful artisan tea set. My assorted friends, “adopted” children, and friends of friends threw me a party at a local vegetarian buffet (and wow, what a spread it was!). Thanks everyone for taking the time to wish me well….

Taiwan National Lottery

When you make a purchase in Taiwan, you will receive a receipt, on which is printed a “uniform receipt number”: several letters and eight numbers, and a 2-month date range. These “lucky” numbers are used as lottery numbers and every other month, a list of winning numbers is published online. Lottery prizes range from 200NT (~8 USD) for matching the last three numbers in a series to 2 million NT (67K USD) for matching all 8 – gee, wouldn’t that be nice to win?!

On the 23rd of each January, March, May, July, September, and November, the government’s lottery website is bombarded. Then, on the 6th of the following month, winners show up at their local post office to claim their prizes. How do I know this? Because I was recently a “winner”!!

I save my receipts, put them in numberical order (according to the last 3 numbers), and check the numbers every other month. Finally, last month, a receipt for a 249NT purchase at Shengli paid off: I matched 4 numbers and won 1000NT! woohoo!

At the post office on the corner of Anhe and Tonghua, I marched my receipt upstairs to the post office bank, took a number and when my number was called, presented the receipt with my ID and walked out 1000NT richer (ok, I had to pay 2NT to process the ticket but I still WON!). And this month again, I won: 200NT. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick! Can the 2mil be far off?

Tomb Sweeping Day

Today, in Taiwan (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in China) is reserved for families to clean and spruce up their family’s tomb. Everyone looks forward to the time off, but interestingly, most of the young people I spoke with were not looking forward to the manual labor in the rising heat. They do acknowlege that the day is for remembering ancestors and seemed surprised  that we don’t have anything similar in the States. Does Grandparents Day count? <smile>

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As for me, I will take the road less travelled…